At the Setia Darma Museum of Masks and Puppetry - Angela Woodward

About the essay and audio:

Field recording: street parade, Batuan, Bali, Indonesia Feb 26, 2014

In early 2014 I had the good fortune to spend a month in Bali as artist in residence at the Bali Purnati Center for the Arts. I was there to work on a novel about monkeys, or so my proposal said. However, in the utter splendor of Bali Purnati, I got little writing done. This was a shock to me, as I’d been angling for two years for this chance to get away, and assumed a lovely fairytale would gush out of me as soon as I opened the lap top. The heat, the animals, the bird song, the perfumed air, the sound of the gamelan (the traditional Balinese instrumental ensemble) rehearsing every evening from the temple across the way, all made such a powerful impression on me that there was little I could add to it in terms of my own invention. It seemed better to spend my time simply watching and listening. My essay “At the Setia Darma Museum of Masks and Puppetry” tries to recreate my experience of sensory overload, as puppet after puppet filled the display cases, and the mysterious black light paintings remained beyond my understanding. The music of the gamelan accompanied me everywhere I went. On one of my last days in Bali, the village turned out for a big celebration, and paraded down the alley beneath my balcony. This was like a gamelan marching band, with mobile instruments slung over the necks of the players. You can hear in the background kids talking and birds singing, the birds seeming in rhythm to the percussion. This is a tiny sliver of the music of Bali, and my essay in its hesitations and gushing flow conveys just a fragment of the wonder of my time there.


“At the Setia Darma Museum of Masks and Puppetry” 


Caption 1 - In ancient culture as a symbol for the goodness to against the evil.

Ongoing nausea even three weeks after my return. Got so sick of my own company. Every time I looked up, a little golden bird flitted by, or an azure butterfly landed on my foot. After not having heard from him for all that time, a short note, a kind of affirming prayer. Very little to put in the journal, she wrote, as the days are all the same. Across the river, white herons followed the farmer around, lifting and flapping down again as he moved along the row.


Caption 2 - Barong Sai usually performance at Chainess New Year.

Carried such vast sums with me, it ran into the millions. I was overcome with anxiety at what I was spending, despite knowing the rows of zeroes meant nothing. The sales girls reacted with alarm at the large denomination notes they struggled to make change for, though I had seen three customers come and go before me, surely they had it in the till, it was only their little pantomime of panic, what was due that piece of paper, no matter whose hand it was in. Suddenly, across the street, a flotilla of gray-haired women began setting down flowers, as if something holy existed behind the parked racks of motorcycles, or something in the motor bikes’ vicinity needed to be cleansed. The rain continued to hold everyone else still beneath their awnings. The taxi men occasionally flicked up their signs, but without making the eye contact that for her had been so precious.


 Caption 3 - This figure describe a widow from Girah village, when King Erlangga ruled the country she spread disasters to the people, because she felt hearth ace to the king who canceled married her daughter.

The problem, as I saw it, was the lack of antagonist. She vomited in the middle of the night, and then immediately had to clean it up with the napkins she’d filched from various restaurants, because the ants showed up instantly, an immense train of them chugging across the floor straight for the disgusting mess, more and more showing up, grim black avenue wriggling with purpose, to carry away the bounty of her effluence. A small note from him came as a kind of affirming prayer.


Caption 4 - Thereby Penasar dancer (narrator character) must have good vowel, adequate knowledge like knowledge of chronicle or history, philosophy, religion, and others related to social control.

After having gone through all the buildings, peering in the back rooms at the wolves and sailors locked behind mildewed plexiglas, the muscular thighs of the go-go girls, the devils and monkeys, the princesses only slightly less made up than the go-go girls and their expressions a tiny bit more demure, the plaid skirts and brocade robes and leather jackets and Parisian gowns of the populace puppets, the hero puppets, the royal puppets, the animal puppets, the animal spirit puppets, the foolish puppets and the wise counselor puppets and the devil puppets and the king puppets and the scorned queen puppets and the old lady puppets and the Barack Obama puppet and the Sukarno puppet and the dancing boy puppets and the ogre puppets and the witch puppets and the courtesan puppets and the crab puppets and the crafty farmer puppets and the lazy girl puppets and the bartender puppets and the villainous banker puppets and the Chinese shopkeeper puppets and the holy man puppets and the recluse saint puppets and the dog puppets and the snake puppets and the green-skinned man puppets and the chorus girl puppets and the fisherman puppets and the mask maker puppets and the man on the street puppets and the  mothers with children puppets and the dragon puppets and the bearded man puppets and the mustached man puppets and the svelte singer puppets and the assassin puppets and the hippie puppets and the rat puppets and the Turkish soldier puppets and the leering puppets and the purely in profile puppets and the vampire puppets and the Michael Jackson puppet and the detective puppets and the stewardess puppets and the great balls of trash puppets, she started to go through the museum all over again. At this point, the guide came up and asked, “You finish?” She explained that there was a lot to take in, and she would start over, at which point the guide made clear with a few words that she would show her the last building, down there, with the two dimension. “Paintings?” It seemed so. The guide brought her in, then pulled the door shut behind her. “You like to see in yellow light, then in blue light,” she said. The stretched canvases, all about six feet by eight feet, hung on the walls and from the ceiling of the drafty barn, all similarly roiled with inked figures of demons and princesses, kings, devils, wise counselors, fools, wicked crones, chariot drivers, possibly all illustrating stages of a story of the abduction of the loved one just as the king was about to make her his. The spirit world and the underworld conspired to thwart the king’s plans, as the woman in question had been pledged to someone else and could never love the king. However, the nonhumans interfered only to mess with the king, who had shot through the eye a holy stag that was actually one of them in disguise, cavorting through the woods one afternoon purely for the pleasure of feeling hooves sink into the rich forest loam, and did not expect to be maimed by the royal huntsman. The feelings of the bride for another man had been used only as an excuse for these wreckers to turn upside down the bridal party. “What are they?” she asked. “Love story,” the guide said. She pointed to one closest, and showed her that every line that made up the cartoonish outlines of the figures was actually composed of very small letters, words in an ancient language the guide could not read. The script told the story of the embattled marriage, while the figures declaimed them. “Who made these?” she asked. The guide either did not know the name of the artist or did not understand the question. She did not know either how long ago they were made, how long the process took, who had collected them, how they came to be at the mask and puppet museum, or more likely she did know these facts but did not understand the questions or could not express the answers adequately in a foreign language developed principally for commerce. When at last she signaled that she’d seen enough, as her senses could take in little more of the ubiquitous red and black and blue demons and kings and princesses and chariots and old women and soldiers and huntsmen and brothers and deadly trees and poisoned banquets and mysterious clouds and disdainful deities, the guide asked if she would like to see them again in the blue light. Whereon she turned off one switch and toggled the other. The panels now appeared completely different, as glow-in-the-dark images in technicolor Victorian sentimentality, such as Snow White eating the apple, Cinderella pointing her toe into the waiting slipper, Juliet leaning over the balcony and calling down to Romeo, these scenes in the blue light completely obliterating the seemingly ancient ink drawings that had been there a moment ago. Again, “who made these, when, how, with what?” None of these could be answered. Bible and Disney stories. Grimm and Shakespeare. By the door, Cleopatra offered her hand to Antony. She and the guide discussed Egypt to no avail, each pronouncing it differently, and probably seeing in their heads not only different alphabets and different maps, but different afternoons and different ensuing evenings. 


Caption 5 - In ancient culture as a symbol for the goodness to against the evil.

Having come to no conclusion about what she had witnessed, she climbed up the steps to the small palisade, where her driver and all the other drivers were resting and chatting.


Caption 6 - Wrapped in the happy situation; the romantic, the dynamic, and the dialectic come together with the sound of the kendang (traditional drum) and others percussion.

A slightly seasick wobbliness between fear and affection. Finally really quiet, just a few bugs and roosters. That felt like more of the current direction. One bird repeating a five-note call, three notes and a descending couplet. The roosters and dogs start in waves, from far away coming nearer, then it dies down and starts again. Then a lot of noise, and just before six the gamelan and a monotonous low buzzing that could be a bullfrog, could be the priest.

About the author:

Angela Woodward is the author of the fiction collection The Human Mind and the novel End of the Fire Cult, both from Ravenna Press. Her work has appeared recently in Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, Caketrain, and Artifice. She was artist in residence at the Bali Purnati Center for the Arts in Bali, Indonesia, in February 2014.